When he was received into the Académie Française on December 15, 2005, the anthropologist and philosopher René Girard delivered a eulogy to his predecessor, the Dominican Ambroise-Marie Carré. In one short sentence, he described “all that the post-conciliar chaos was dilapidating – the sense of what sin is, unconditional commitment, love for Catholic dogma, scorn for idle controversies” (René Girard and Michel Serres, Le Tragique et la Piété). He also mentioned the “experimental activities” that much of the clergy enthusiastically put into practice, “at the time when all the ambitious were capitalizing the word ‘contestation’.” This was in 1968.
Fifty years ago, in the midst of the raging upheaval caused by the Council, one man found himself faced with the weighty task of assembling a Chapter to update his religious congregation and adapt it to the times. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers at the time, and in the midst of the dilapidating chaos, the experimental activities, the contestation and the upheaval, he chose to withdraw.
The story of the forced resignation of the Superior of one of the Church’s most important religious congregations is a page of history that reveals much about the crisis the Church is living through.
Elected by a Large Majority Six Years Earlier
In 1968, Archbishop Lefebvre had been superior of his congregation for six years. He was elected by his fellow religious with a large majority on July 26, 1962, in the second round of votes, and Pope John XIII approved the election two days later. The former archbishop of Dakar who had become bishop of Tulle six months earlier, left his diocese in Corrèze and moved to Paris, rue Lhomond, to the General House of the Spiritan Fathers. Assistant to the papal throne and member of the Preparatory Commission for Vatican Council II, his election as head of his congregation coincided with the opening of this assembly. All throughout the Council’s five sessions, he kept the members of his religious family updated on the debates, the texts adopted, and the decision made.
This study does not intend to present everything Archbishop Lefebvre said during the Council. Readers can find all his speeches in I Accuse the Council. The idea is rather to show how, over a period of six years, the situation became inextricably untenable. When he was elected in 1962, Archbishop Lefebvre inherited a delicate situation that can give readers an idea of the great difficulties involved in governing an institution that had fallen prey to the indecision and questioning of the period that followed World Wars.
A Headwind Mandate
Divisions and a harmful atmosphere were developing above all in France and particularly in Chevilly-Larue, the congregation’s main scholasticate. Authors with modern tendencies and experiments in self-management and self-formation were developing dangerously. Archbishop Lefebvre undertook to put an end to this. He demanded that the library containing the condemned works of Fr. Congar and Fr. Chenu be purged.
He transferred Fr. Fourmond, who was trying to eliminate apologetics and the treatise on the Blessed Virgin Mary from his theology class. In the spring of 1963, he sent precise directives to the superiors of the major scholasticates, ordering them “to remove all those imbued with Modernist ideas from teaching positions.” He exhorted them to show discernment in their choice of preachers for retreats and conferences, and authors for journals.
We must avoid everything that is likely to undermine respect for the Church and the Pope, and everything that minimizes the historical truth of the Scriptures, the value of Tradition, the fundamental notions of morality and sin, and personal responsibility. We must prevent the invasion of the spirit of the world in religious communities.
(Bp. Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography, Angelus Press, p. 345)
Archbishop Lefebvre renewed the teaching staff in the scholasticates, especially the deans of studies. In philosophy, he denounced the “great evils of our time, idealism and subjectivism. Thomistic philosophy alone gives us knowledge of the real.” In theology, he insisted upon “the importance of the Magisterium, and on Tradition and its relations with the ministry of sacraments and sacrifice”. He prescribed refectory readings of the main encyclicals and papal documents from Pius IX to the present, especially the acts of St. Pius X.
As for the liturgy, his orders were to follow the prescriptions from Rome, “avoid everything that comes from the personal initiatives of so-called liturgists”, keep the language of the Church, never fuse the para-liturgy with the liturgy, not to celebrate Mass facing the people, and not to receive Communion standing up.
The Reformation Turns into a Tornado
At the end of the year 1963, he insisted yet again on the very alarming situation in some of the Spiritan houses. Bishop Tissier de Mallerais describes the prelate’s appalling description:
Ruin of authority, unbridled freedom, the right to judge and criticize everything, the absence of humility. The loss of respect for colleagues, authority, and for themselves. The loss of modesty in dress, in looks, in reading and television. (...) Scorn for traditions, giving up Latin and Gregorian chant, and abandoning scholastic philosophy and theology.
Unfortunately, although Archbishop Lefebvre was lucid, he lacked decisive men capable of implementing the much-needed reforms. In Chevilly, he accepted the resignation of the rector and the replacement of three professors, but the new rector nominated in 1964 later admitted that he had betrayed his trust: “I pulled the wool over his eyes and used methods that were not to his liking. The students were my brothers, not my inferiors!” This attitude reveals an inability to practice “a truly fatherly authority that was both strong, capable of training priests, and able to withstand the craze for the new theology and for revolutionary teaching methods.” (Bp. Tissier, p. 348)
During the years of the Council, the direction Archbishop Lefebvre wished to give was more and more openly contested even within his congregation and under pressure from the other bishops, especially French bishops.
Coming tomorrow: The Impossible Aggiornamento